Could Elemental Metals Be Key to Effective Alzheimer's Treatments?

Alzheimer's Brain Puzzle

Researchers have grappled with Alzheimer's Disease for decades, with each discovery providing a little fresh spark of hope for treatment options and, dare we say, a cure. Researchers from the UK universities Keele and Warwick published the latest research in Science Advances this week, showing biogenic metallic elements in the brains of deceased Alzheimer's patients. 

The researchers used intense X-ray beams to find nanoparticles of the elemental form of copper and iron in "chemically reduced states". While these metals do occur naturally in the body and are necessary for brain function, they are usually stored in an oxidized form. 

This is the first confirmation of elemental metals in human brain tissue. Researchers hope it can contribute to the ongoing Herculean task of finding a cure for devastating neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. 

While high levels of zinc, iron, and copper have long been linked to the hallmark buildup of amyloid and tau in the brains of AD patients, there is not yet evidence to show whether this relationship causes the disease. 

It has previously been suggested that coming into contact with these metals through cookware and food increases your risk of developing the disease. But research does not support those claims.

Neil Telling, professor of biomedical nanophysics at Keele said in a statement that there is "absolutely no reason to think that everyday exposure to these metals could cause their presence in the brain." 

Typically, the body clears metals in small amounts through the kidneys. It has been shown that if they are not removed by the kidneys, either by organ failure or exposure through extremely high doses, these metals can deposit in the brain.  

While "unexpected," Telling clarifies that with the team's discovery of copper and iron in the brain, it is "not yet clear whether such particles are indeed linked to the disease. At the very least, their presence indicates that there is much more to learn about the way in which metals are processed in the brain." 

While the find of elemental metals was "unexpected," considerably more research is needed before the discovery can impact treatments for AD. The next question would potentially focus on how these metals interact with amyloid proteins that form the plaque buildup found in Alzheimer's patients. 

"Ultimately, this line of research could lead to new treatments that target metals as well as the amyloid proteins currently under consideration." 

The research team hopes their discovery could aid in the development of new lines of therapies that would work to restore mental balance in diseased brains to slow or prevent the devastating progression of these incurable neurodegenerative diseases. 

Currently, over 6 million Americans have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. It is estimated that, without more medical breakthroughs to prevent or slow the condition, that number will grow to 12.7 million, racking up an enormous financial and emotional toll.  

In the past week, Biogen's aducanumab, marketed as Aduhelm, was the first drug approved in almost 20 years for Alzheimer's. It was the first drug ever approved to treat an underlying cause of the disease.  

However, that endorsement comes with its own slew of challenges and controversy. Many argue that the drug has not proven its efficacy enough for approval. Others feel that any amount or chance of improvement is better than nothing for AD patients with no other hope.  

The drug did prove its ability to reduce amyloid beta plaques – a longtime target for AD researchers. The question comes whether clearing the plaque will result in clinical benefit. With the approval comes the stipulation of proving benefit with real-world data. 

"Aducanumab is just the first of several Alzheimer's drugs that will become available in the next five to 10 years," said Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation CSO Howard Fillit, M.D. "The robust Alzheimer's research pipeline, complemented by a growing number of biomarkers and other important research tools, means that the clinical trials underway today are more rigorous and more promising than ever." 

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